Book Review

The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652

Kevin J. Bidwell
Chad Van Dixhoorn
Thursday, May 1st 2014
May/Jun 2014

Collected in five volumes and edited by Chad Van Dixhoorn (published by Oxford University Press, 2012), this is a monumental academic and theological contribution. These volumes will probably form the basis for scholarship that seeks to interact with the Westminster Assembly for the remainder of this century, at least. It is, after all, a full return to the primary source material surrounding the creation of the Westminster Standards, which are some of the world's foremost statements of the Christian faith. Ad fontes should be the motto of historians, sociologists, and, of course, theology students. However, we would misunderstand the breadth of appeal of these volumes if we deemed them to be of interest only to the church: the influence of these minutes and papers will cross scholarly disciplines.

I am writing this essay, however, primarily as a Presbyterian minister and theologian. (One of the Westminster divines, Stanley Gower, ministered in the part of the city where our Sheffield [Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales] congregation meets.) It is going to take time for the "drip effect" of these volumes to crystallize into new formations of thought, though this seems the likely result. Anachronistic assertions that have ascended to an unchallenged status regarding the conclusions and process of the assembly's work will in time slowly disappear. But, just as the assembly's fruits involved an arduous process, rethinking our approach to the assembly's conclusions will similarly require industrious labor, patience, and frank discussion.

The stage is now set to outline the content of the five volumes, and any engagement with this project cannot be in haste. The first volume is a must-read. John Morrill explains in his foreword: "I am confident that all users of this edition will be richly rewarded so long as they have the patience to read the introduction and to treat the volumes holistically, drawing on all parts of it" (xi).

Approaching this collection is much the same as the daunting feeling of moving to live in a large city, with the need to understand the layout of that city, something often learned by getting lost. If we draw that parallel with these "Minutes," then reading volume one will reduce the orientation time because it lays down a "road map" to an extensive "street system." The opening volume will be essential for those readers outside the United Kingdom because there are so many unfamiliar place names; the glossary, map, and list of county abbreviations will be most useful for such readers. I wondered if the "Abbreviations" section would have best been placed at the very front of the first volume, instead of being part of a "Reader's Guide" on pages 99-105. It is impossible to read the footnotes without reference to it.

In addition to the maps, tables, photos, and useful appendices, the highlight of the first volume is Chad Van Dixhoorn's introduction. Considering that Van Dixhoorn is an outstanding historical transcriber and project manager, he proves to be an equally able historical writer. His style is lively, incisive, and lucid. My impression is that the subsection on "The Solemn League and Covenant and The Scottish Commission" may be oft quoted. He writes that Robert Baillie's letters "almost sensationalize the theologians of the Scottish commission as an elite strike-force’a four-man gang of trained specialists rushed into Westminster Abbey to rescue hapless English Presbyterians" (24). He evaluates with care and clarity the folklore and tradition that have surrounded the commissioners.

The "Biographical Dictionary" supplies historical portraits of key assembly figures (106-47), though readers will observe the notable absence of entries for John Owen, Thomas Watson, and Oliver Cromwell. Despite the fact that Owen and Cromwell were both included in the famous assembly painting by J. R. Herbert, and that Owen and Watson were remarkable theologians, none of these men were actually part of the assembly (it is perhaps time for a new painting). Nonetheless, two of my other favorite inclusions in the series are a "Register of Citations" (148-61) and the "Leading Assembly Contributors" (212-13).

The former supplies a register of the theological citations by the assembly or its members. Augustine, Calvin, Chrysostom, Cyprian, and Tertullian are prominent; but more investigation will be inspired as researchers consider the much quoted Theodore de Bèze, Thomas Cartwright, Johannes Piscator, and William Whitaker. The leading assembly contributors provide a kind of premier league table of speeches, with Stephen Marshall ("the irenic Presbyterian"), the most frequent number with 465, followed by Lazarus Seaman, and then Cornelius Burges. It is my hope that this essay will whet the appetite of many to delve into this labyrinth of material, producing fruitful lines of enquiry on many levels.

Van Dixhoorn agrees with S. E. Ahlstrom that the assembly's confession became "by far the most influential doctrinal symbol in American Protestant history," and he states that the Westminster Standards are considered by many to be "the finest and most enduring statements of early modern Reformed theology" (86-87). With this in mind, let me give a brief sketch of the remaining volumes. The second (687 pages), third (791 pages), and fourth volumes (897 pages) are the minutes that cover the assembly sessions of the Westminster divines from August 4, 1643, to April 24, 1652. The fifth volume (472 pages) comprises supplementary material, including letters by the assembly. It is completed with a compendium of the plenary sessions with dates and Scripture and Apocrypha citations. Also, there are three separate indices for subjects, places, people, and names.

Volumes two to four are the assembly minutes proper. Volume two is 687 pages long, and after reading this volume, if you have romantic illusions of the work of the assembly, they will be dispelled very quickly. Day after day the divines discussed, argued, debated, and presented viewpoints concerning many aspects of doctrine, including church government. The work was obviously arduous, tiring, difficult at times, and challenging; these men were thorough, vigorously committed to orthodoxy, and educated with rich learning.

A snippet of the erudite contributions can be sampled by a speech given by Thomas Gataker in the midst of discussion on the remission of sins and justification. He refers to continental Reformed confessions and theologians such as Caspar Olevianus, Johannes Piscator, and Abraham Scultetus. He then expounds the word "justify" from English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. His comments are replete with biblical references and his conclusions are searching; he discerns the theological nuances between finely balanced teachings of remission of sins, justification, and reconciliation (vol. 2, 43-45). Reading Gataker should be an antidote for anyone suffering from theological pride.

Toward the end of this second volume there is the record of intense debate in the assembly minutes regarding matters of church government and the locus classicus text of Matthew 18:17, "Tell it to the church," which forms part of that debate. The seemingly inconclusive subject surrounded this question: "Is the locus of church authority and ex-communication in the final court of the local church congregation, the church's elders or the regional elders together to form a presbytery?" This was not a new discussion; it had been rumbling among the English Separatists such as Robert Browne, John Robinson, and John Smyth, to name a few, from the 1590s until the assembly. There was vociferous dissent raised against the Presbyterian Church of England majority in the assembly on the issue of the final seat of church authority by Philip Nye, Thomas Goodwin, William Bridge, and others (493-684).

This was no minor key in the debates on the floor of the assembly, as is recorded in the minutes, which covers almost two hundred pages of volume two. In reading these congregational proponents, it appears evident that these men are contending for a particular formation of church government, yet they are labelled as "Congregationalists" and not "Independents" by Van Dixhoorn (see session headings 493, 507, 518, 617 as examples). However, their display of ecclesial principles that lean to independency raises questions. It is beyond the scope of this review to "drill down" deeper on this theological matter, but the editorial decision to remove the pejorative label "Independent"’a word actually never found recorded in the debates’in favor of "Congregational Presbyterians" is probably helpful.

While the end of volumes two and most of three are taken up with the "grand debate" on church government, as labeled by Robert S. Paul ("The Assembly of the Lord"), there are other theological themes running concurrently as well, such as the ongoing work on the Confession of Faith. It appears that the work of the assembly picks up speed in volume four, even though the details of much discussion are not always recorded because it was conducted in committees. This volume spans the period 1646-1652, and the culmination of months of debate, fasting, prayer, speeches, and discussion comes to fruition with the completion of the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, besides the examination of hundreds of ministers of the Church of England, not to mention responses to Parliament and overseas correspondence with continental Reformed Churches.

What can be learned from these minutes and papers of the Westminster assembly? I have written this essay as a working Presbyterian minister, and my goal has been to evaluate this material through the prism of conservative, Reformed, and Presbyterian ecclesiology’one that is hopefully continuing in the same established theological tradition. A valuable lesson gleaned is that there was a breadth of opinion in the assembly on many topics, but it became defined within clear written parameters. The production of their documents was the outcome of consensus and that not of a single theologian; this should guard us from assumptions that our own "specific brand" of the Reformed Church is the only precise pattern to be followed. On the other hand, their theological settlements are timeless, and a fresh return to their agreement on the directory for public worship would question the validity of many contemporary "winds of doctrine" on this subject.

In addition, another lesson to be embraced is that of listening to others in debate. Open and vigorous discussion, anchored in historical, systematic, and biblical theology, should be sought and not suppressed. The assembly conducted its business in painstaking detail, without undue haste, and in correspondence with the continental Reformed Churches. There appears to have been a broad European consensus of the Reformed Church and this assembly stood firmly in the same lineage, with healthy theological relationships outside of Great Britain. In conclusion, I unreservedly commend these volumes, and I recommend that presbyteries should consider buying a presbytery set, possibly to be stewarded by the clerk to enable as many as possible to gain access to this material. The cost of these volumes will be prohibitive for most individuals to purchase them, but perhaps a collective purchase and stewardship is a beneficial presbyterial practice in any such case.

Thursday, May 1st 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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